tv Tavis Smiley PBS April 27, 2012 12:00am-12:30am PDT
angeles, and travis miley. from for time novelist, american dervishes the story of a young boy growing up in america in the 1980's that deals with the issue of what it means to be growing up as a muslim in america. we are glad that you have joined us. >> every city has a martin luther king boulevard. it is a place where more and more -- for wal-mart stands together with your community. >> and by contributions to your pbs stations from viewers like you. thank you.
tavis:ayad akhtar is a playwright and actor who has never in his first-ever novel. "american dervish "is his own experiences growing up in america. ayad, not bad for a first novel. >> not kidding. tavis: is is based on your life experiences so it is somewhat autobiographical. a think each and everyone of us has a story him. to put it another way, each of this is a story. what is it about your story that be wanted us to come to terms with. >> i think i wanted to tell a story about faith in this country. i feel like one of the things
that is central to american white is the religious experience. -- american life is the religious experience. and the muslim american is as valid and as an important perspective on religion in america as well as an evangelical christianity or judaism. i also wanted to tell a story that was familiar. it was a story about a dysfunctional family. it is an immigrant story. but a wanted to tell that story in an idiom that was new, that is to say the muslim american experience. >>tavis: it is told through the experiences of a young boy who falls in love with a woman who breaks his heart even joy when she falls in love with a jew. so you have religion at play here already. i will let you take it from there. >> the story is about a
beautiful brilliant pakistani woman who comes to america to rebuild her life after a formal divorce. she has a 4-year-old son who she brings to this country. she lives with family friends and she knew back in pakistan, but who had immigrated here. the book is narrated from the perspective of the boys of that family that she comes to stay with. it takes place over the course of two years. she stays with them when he is from the ages of 10 to 12. his faith.im up to his parents are secular muslims. his father is actually a very violent lef-- is violate against religion. she opens up experience and the motion that he has never experienced before. that is all completed with his
appreciation for and inculcation and an education islam that she introduces to him. over the course of the story, this 12-year-old boy ends up, without realizing what is happening to and, falling in love with this woman. and she begins to have this courtship with his father's best friend, a jewish doctor. he begins to feel things that, again, he does not understand, something that becomes destructive jealousy. how he deals with this is a lot of what this book is about. this story offers an opportunity to explore the awakening of a legitimate childhood experience of faith and then held that begins to revolve anin his evolving consciousness. there are three points of view.
there is the liturgist -- the littlest orthodox pointed you and the mystical personal use of faith as a vehicle to a deeper expression of life. and this woman who changes his life is a representative of that point of view. so those three points of view of faith are battling it out in his evolving consciousness to very dramatic and ultimately destructive and it's -- destructive anne'ends. tavis: of all the ways to get us to appreciate the humanity of muslims, why faith as a way in? >> because it is important for me. it has been important for me in my life. not to be overly happy about it, but anyway, i think that a lot of the world is grappling with the heritage of the enlightenment has not that has
not been able to respond to fundamental human needs. i think we're looking for those answers even if we won't find them. we're looking for those answers and, more often than not, we're looking to religion. so the way that religion has taken on a kind of violent amplitude in the current political landscape across the world is part and parcel of the fact that i think there are holes the there are trying to be filled. people are looking to fill those holes. faith is an important part -- a book of the civil rights movement. it is this black religious experience. there is a lot to be gained from our history in fate. i think sometimes it gets a bad rap. but you cannot write a book that will be of any interest from an intellectual point of view. it is something that is deeply important to me, an important
part of my life. tavis: i am glad you said that. how was it that you write a book about this that has not just faith, but muslim faith that the epicenter of the novel. you know full well that this happens to be subject matter yet that americans have not been able to rack our brains around. maybe the way for it is through a novel because we all love to read books. but why even attempt something when you know that the majority of the american public -- not the majority, but a lot of us have not been able to wrap our brains just respecting it as a legitimate faith tradition? >> that is a great question. when you posed to me in that way, i see what you're saying. and me as a writer, i do not live in the perspective. the questions are so immediate that i am writing from things that just feel very second nature to me. i have also been around awhile.
i am 41 and i have been writing for a long time. it is only recently that folks have started paying attention to what i am doing. in some ways, i don't think i expected anybody to read the book. i am as overjoyed as anyone that it is getting the kind of attention it is getting. so i don't think i wrote the book with the idea in mind that a vast american public would read it, but it definitely rooted -- i come from the theater and the audience is essential to me. i do not want to be talking above. it must give pleasure on the one hand and has to be gutted by symmetry. those things have to coexist. so i was not thinking about answering the question of how to expose the white american public to the muslim faith. tavis: how do you juxtapose those two things, that point i made the point you made, namely that americans have not wrapped
there are surrounded about respecting the muslim faith tradition with the fact that the book is being so wonderfully and wildly received. question think there's a connection there. there is a desire -- a think folks have a desire to experience the muslim experience in a way that is accessible to them. i think they are hoping for vehicles that will give them the opportunity. is that.now if my book some people seem to think it is pinkett it is, thank you -- i think -- some people seem to think it is. i do not think it is. no matter what tradition you come from, there is a perception out there that somehow muslims are newer to doubt, that they don't have doubt. that somehow their form of faith is different and people will be
willing to do things for the sake of faith in an unquestioning way that nobody else would do. and i think that one of the deeper messages, if there is a message in dervish is that muslims would grapple with doubt, too. doubt is an essential part of the experience of faith. >tavis: you said something that may have been a freudian slip. if it was not, i will take it anyway. when you suggested that muslims, those who practice and believe in a slam -- in its long -- in islam, you said faith instead of doubt -- there are christians to grapple with faith. do muslims wrestle with faith?
doubt, i get. >> i think so. what is happening around the world -- i think there's a younger generation of moslems to look to examples and one is the assimilation and rejection model and one is opposition to the west, which has had a long history. two western invasion, western occupation, western definition of the middle east and further east in the subcontinent. i think those models are obsolete. and i think the young muslims are looking for different ways to relate to islam, not necessarily to reject it outright and not necessarily to have to accept it as it has been interpreted and understood for more than a thousand years if you are sendinsunni. a way of approaching fate is still very rigid, in terms of reading the koran, which the book challenges. so i think young muslims across the world are asking the
question and are struggling and grappling with the issue of faith because there is this sense i think among young people -- if you read the statistics of monasteries in korea, young westerners are meditating. there is this move across the planet, people looking for answers where they feel that there might still be god. could beat answers gleaned? i think there is something to learn from every state. to your earlier point about the car okoran -- >> you would be surprised how many people who have read "burress" have e-mail me to say that they have -- "dervish" have
been mailed me to say that they have gone out and bought a quran. in islam, there is a tradition where you memorize the entire book. he is memorizing it in english. there are sections of the crow koran in the book and wanted to have deeper meaning and have deeper access. something that has made it difficult for westerners to penetrate the quran is that they do not weigh in on a linguistic level. something else that is so important about it is that you can see it in many different things. one of the important ways to see it is that people do not talk about enough, as a secondary source commenting on the old testament. koran, there are so
many nuances that for the people that it was intended for already have an understanding of those things. i don't know if that answers your question about the crowqur. tavis: the other part of the question is what do you think we can learn from the faith tradition? >> i appreciate the question. i do want to offer myself as some fountain of wisdom about it. but one of the things that i find very meaningful in the faith -- and i consider myself a muslim.l slump
the notion of submission means submission and the notion of submission can be understood in a way that is not dissimilar to radical acceptance from the book of submission where there is a real acceptance or surrender to the present. and i think that represents a real attainment, the extent to which we can aspire to live with some sense of radical acceptance of others, marcelles, of the situations we are in. it gives -- ourselves, the situation we are in. it gives us the chance to examine which is really happening, what is here, how can we really address what is happening? tavis: i asked you earlier why fate as the way and, why in novel -- it occurs to me now that we have an interesting and
intense conversation about issues that are real that could have well been addressed through a non-fiction text appeared quiet and novel? >> i am a storyteller. i feel that the issue of discourse -- there's a lot of political and ideological discourse and we relate to that on an intellectual level. it is important to strip away the idea sometimes and give people a felt human experience, an emotional experience of the issue. people are living and dying not just for ideas, but for the way they experience and live the meaning of those ideas. and the way the expense of the meaning of those ideas is through the stories in their lives, the stories they tell about themselves, the stories that they tell, the stories that their lives become. i am a story teller. i am deeply right. i am a filmmaker. i am a -- i am a playwright.
i am a filmmaker. i'm a novelist. if you can tell a related story -- the chinese say that the truth that is sweet to hear is often the truth that is heard. as a storyteller, the extent to which i can really draw a reader in, drawn in an audience, it makes them available and open to consider things that they might not otherwise consider. truth.let's talk about i have always been of the belief that there is the truth and there is the path to the truth. what does the young boy's story here tell us about the path to the truth? >> the book is many things.
it is a coming-of-age story, an immigrant tailor, a dysfunctional family story, a conversion narrative. but fundamentally, what it is is a challenge to finding the answer outside yourself. sooner or later, we'll have to confront the reality that we have got to come to understand who we are and what we're doing and the extent to which we are guided or manipulated by forces that are beyond our control. faulkner once said that literature were the of the name must deal with evil. "dervish" is an attempt to answer that question with something perhaps like evil can come by something that has been abandoned by good.
this child who has been neglected finally finds some source of life. when he feels that that had left him, that can lead him to a sense that will lead to do very destructive things. tavis: navigating that journey on the way to truth can be difficult for one who was born and bred as an american. i would imagine that that journey -- >> what do you mean? tavis: if you were born and raised in this country as i am -- >> as i was, too. i was born here. tavis: finding the truth is difficult -- >> because of the culture. tavis: because of everything around us. that journey to the truth is more difficult for an immigrant. >> i get it. tavis: are you serious? i did not expected to say that.
>> i did not understand the question tavis. tavis: tell me why he said that. >> as a thinking individual and the member of aone a minority, it makes it much easier to see that with everyone believes to be true is not mr. leach. tavis: but you are still in the minority and not everyone understands you or your faith. >> i do not think that the path to the truth is contingent on other people understanding you. those are two different things. and i think that other people understanding one's truth is an important part of the development process for an agent, a social agent. but i think you have to come to understand your own perspective. it is much easier to do that --
i grew up in milwaukee. we were the only muslim family on the west side for i don't know how long. there was only one filipino family as well. are there universal values? it made me question the values that were taught to me and it also made me question the values that were taught to my friends. tavis: there are reasons for why there is that assimilation category. a whole lot of folks are in it. because the pressures of the culture and the pressures of the civilization you find yourself in -- when you are on the outside looking in, it forces people to abandon, to sacrifice, to assimilate. >> but it also offers some individuals an opportunity to see that it is all, as shakespeare would say, that all the world is a stage.
it is all an unfolding play. and the only agency we really have is to understand our own place in it. does that make sense? tavis: it makes sense to me. dervish defined means? >> one who gives of everything for god. a sort of wandering mendicants in the islamic tradition. someone who gave up the home and goes into tradition of falling god. tavis: what were they when you wrote this tax? given the response to the text of the novel, do you think the expectations are being fulfilled? >> sykesville that the book has created a lot of dialogue. -- i think that the book has treated a lot of dialogue. a lot of muslims have celebrated the book. but there are a lot more upset
about it, in particular because the book is not trying to massage the optics of islam in the american landscape. i was not interested in doing that. i don't feel that, as an artist, my job is to offer pr or propaganda, either for the good or for the bad. i have to try as hard as possible to tell my truth. and in doing so, i don't think i realized that some new people would be upset about me doing that. but there is also lots of people who have deeply embraced the book. i feel very gratified by that. tavis: how du process on your own receiving not. >> everything from frustration and anger and patience and attempt at compassion. [laughter] tavis: are other elements of their critique that have
resonated with you? >> no. tavis:wow. [laughter] >> this is an important point. is a process the eternal word of god. and the christian and today you christian world has had that. it is an untenable position. within the islamic tradition, the rigidity of approaching the koran literally means that it is more difficult to access its real wisdom. i feel like what i am doing is trying to offer different perspective that leads to a deepening and a heightening of our relationship as muslims to be drawn -- to the koran. think a lot of people think i'm
being disrespectful. tavis: it is being talked about greatly across the country. a lot of wonderful applause for the book. the book is called "american bearish," written by ayad akhtar. all the best to you. good to have you. >> my pleasure. tavis: be sure to download are new tennis miley -- our new tavis smiely app. as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit pbs.org. join tavis: in next time for a conversation with steve tyrell on his latest cd, "i'll take romance." >> every community has a margin